TOKYO, JAN. 2 -- Nearly 70,000 flag-waving Japanese made a pilgrimage to the Imperial Palace today to cheer Emperor Hirohito, 86, whose recent surgery and continuing frailty gave a special poignancy to his annual New Year's greeting.

The emperor's health has been front-page news since September, when he underwent surgery for the first time for what doctors of the Imperial Household Agency said was severe pancreatitis. Since then, the Japanese government, press and the secretive imperial agency have been discreetly preparing for what they call "X-day" -- the day when, after more than six decades on the Chrysanthemum Throne, Hirohito will die and his son, Crown Prince Akihito, now 55, will take over.

Hirohito, who like his predecessors had been revered as a god, renounced his divinity and became a figurehead monarch after Japan's defeat in World War II. But the emotional bond between him and his subjects, especially those who remember his efforts to buoy the spirit of the nation after its defeat, was evident today in Hirohito's first public appearance since his hospitalization. Well-wishers waved paper flags and shouted, "Banzai!" ("May you live 10,000 years!"), during his three brief appearances on a glassed-in balcony.

"Since he was sick, I didn't think I was going to see him," said Makoto Nagaoka, who makes traditional Japanese cakes for a living. "But he got well, so I had to come."

"The emperor is the center of Japan, after all," added Atsutami Fujimoto, a retired real estate salesman making his 16th New Year's visit to the palace. "As long as I have my life, I want to take my grandchildren to see the emperor."

Since the end of World War II, when it first became permissible for Japanese to look at the emperor's face, Hirohito has invited the public to cross the water-filled moat and visit the usually private palace grounds twice each year, on Jan. 2 and on his birthday in April. In deference to his condition, the emperor's appearances were cut from five to three today.

"Thank you all for your worries about my health," he said, wearing a dark suit and speaking into a microphone. "I hope this will be a good year for you."

The emperor stepped slowly back into the palace after a four-minute appearance and his son, the crown prince, took his place at center stage for a brief wave to the crowd.

Many in the crowd left their homes outside Tokyo on New Year's Day and spent the night in city inns so they could be near the palace this morning. Kensen Saito said he traveled from Toronto, where he has lived for 8 1/2 years, just to see the emperor.

"I came to celebrate his health and to remember the sacrifice and suffering of the Japanese people during the war," Saito said.

While prosperous Japan today shows few physical scars of its defeat, emotionally the war and postwar years loom large in the minds of many Japanese, and the crowd today clearly viewed the New Year's visit as a symbolic harkening back to that time.

But the crowd also included many younger Japanese for whom the war is just a topic in history class. They seemed to want to pay homage to a grandfatherly figure, a marine biologist whose calm demeanor, many Japanese say, conveys a sense of deep caring for his people.